Breaking: Demand Curves Slope Downward, Even in Healthcare

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 6:49 PM EST

This is supposedly a surprising result:

Doctors who have easy computer access to results of X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are 40 to 70 percent more likely to order those kinds of tests than doctors without electronic access, according to a study to be published in the March issue of the journal Health Affairs.

....Researchers found that doctors who did not have computerized access ordered imaging tests in 12.9 percent of visits, while doctors with electronic access ordered imaging in 18 percent of visits, a 40 percent greater likelihood. Doctors with computerized access were even more likely — about 70 percent more likely — to order advanced imaging tests, such as PET scans, which experts said are most commonly used to detect cancer, heart problems, brain disorders and other central nervous system disorders.

Hmmm. This is.....exactly what I would have predicted if I'd ever actually thought about this. Computerized access to imaging results does two things: it lowers the cost (in time and hassle) of using the results and it makes the results a lot more useful. I use a thesaurus way more than I used to for exactly the same reason: an electronic thesaurus is less hassle and it's more useful thanks to hyperlinks that allow me to quickly trace through a word tree to find what I'm looking for. So of course I use it more than I ever used my paper copies.

Anyway, it's the next step that's more counterintuitive anyway. The authors suggest that although electronic records are supposed to lower healthcare costs in general, they might not. Although some costs will go down, others — thanks to things like wider use of imaging results — will go up. So it might be a wash.

Which is fine with me. I never bought the notion that electronic records would really restrain costs much anyway. I just think they're a good idea because they'll reduce medical errors and make life more convenient. I've been with Kaiser Permanente for the past few years, and their extensive computerization of everything really does streamline the whole process of dealing with the healthcare system. I'm totally sold, regardless of whether they're saving any money by doing it.

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